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Prof. Tierney examines the American experience of unconventional war

Prof. Tierney with IWP Interns, Summer 2014On July 17th, the 2014 intern class met at IWP for lunch with Dr. John Tierney, Jr. to discuss his book Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History.

Following the end of the Vietnam War, Dr. Tierney – and indeed, many others – wondered how a nation as large and powerful as the US could fail to subdue Vietnam, a country with an area about the size of New Jersey. He answered this question by researching whether the US had ever suffered similar strategic failure. First, he found included that successful overseas invasions usually receive little public attention relative to failed occupations. Second, the findings revealed that the case of the Philippines from 1899 to 1946 was characteristic of such failed occupations in that it followed a successful invasion. Dr. Tierney explained that this clarified the conundrum of Vietnam: it showed that the US had simply resisted learning a truth about unconventional war that it had many chances to rediscover.

Starting with Grant and Sherman, the US developed fast-paced materiel-centric warfare, without scrutinizing whether it was actually responsible for either ending wars or producing strategic success. The US lost the understanding of asymmetrical warfare that George Washington learned and internalized in the French and Indian War and that Southern irregulars like John Mosby practiced in the Civil War. Thus, it was unprepared for unconventional environments like that of Vietnam and remained unprepared for similar challenges in the twenty-first century.

In closing, Dr. Tierney imparted a boxing analogy to the interns, warning that among foreign cultures and peoples, no matter how small, dominant powers must have realistic expectations of what they can accomplish; irregular forces will always have an advantage in their home turf; and “smoking out” such guerillas and their sympathizers tends to be costly to morale.

Claire Davis
Research Assistant and Intern